Just as you don’t have to be first to be the best, a product doesn't have to be the first of its kind to be the winner in a category. The Echo Show, the first smart display from Amazon, was a valiant effort to set the tone for this particular kind of assistant-with-a-screen.
But from what I’ve experienced with the brand new Lenovo Smart Display over the course of a week and a half, Google is now the one setting a precedent for what devices like this should aspire to be. Sorry, Amazon.
Amazon got there first, but Google did it better
Unlike the Echo, which is made directly by Amazon, Google's first smart display is made by Lenovo. While the Chinese tech company has a reputation for quality, it’s really the Google Assistant that makes this device worth buying.
The fact that Google has had a long time to incubate the visual version of its digital assistant gives it a significant leg up over Amazon, which launched its smart display over a year ago. The Lenovo Smart Display is also a bit cheaper than the Echo Show, with the 8-inch version starting at $200, and the 10-inch selling for $250. Keep in mind that the Echo Show's screen is only 7 inches, and it costs $229.99.
What Google got right
- Style and sound
- Easy setup
- An intuitive interface
- Google Assistant display integration
- Video and voice calling
- Smart home control
It’s stylish, and it sounds good
The Lenovo Smart Display is the first of a wave of smart display devices featuring the Google Assistant, so it had to make a big entrance. The result is a super cool, modern design that fits in with any household, especially those that are IKEA- or West Elm-laden. It comes with an 8-inch or 10-inch display, the latter of which comes equipped with a Full HD screen and a bamboo back. The smaller of the two Smart Displays has a regular HD screen and a soft-touch gray backside, and both devices feature a curved back that functions as both a vertical and a horizontal stand. For this review, I tested the 10-inch Lenovo Smart Display and used it primarily in landscape mode.
The Smart Display feels like a polished device right out of the box. Its back is carved out a bit so you could fit in a plant or other decor behind it if you wanted to. I like that Lenovo made a concentrated effort to design a product that not only looks stylish enough to be prominently displayed but is also meant to blend in with the decor. The Echo Shows looks like a clunky piece of hardware in comparison.
This is not a music-first product, but whatever tunes you play through it will sound full and lively through the built-in 10-watt stereo speakers. They're not as bass-deep as the Apple HomePod, to offer an example, but they can still help set the mood in a social situation.
I also prefer it to the Google Home Max (designed with music playback in mind) for listening to music with guests, since most at-home hangouts only call for background music. It also offers a bit of a coffeehouse vibe by displaying the artist and album information during playback. Plus, your guests will be less likely to interrupt with the question, "what song is this?"
Setup is quick
If you already have a Google Home device, setting up the Lenovo Smart Display is as straightforward as turning on the device and connecting it to WiFi through the Google Home app on your phone.
If you don't have a Google Home, that's fine, too. Everything is configured through an app rather than by touching the Smart Display, which makes the process a more familiar one.
It has an intuitive interface
One of the things that make the Amazon Echo Show sort of a no-show is that you hardly interact with the screen except to control media. The Lenovo Smart Display works in the same vein, but because it has the sophistication of the same Google Assistant that's on Android devices, it makes better use of its screen real estate.
For instance, when you prompt the Smart Display with a command, an indicator pops up to show you it's listening to your voice so it can identify who is speaking. Then it responds with audio and visual feedback. Asking it to show you the weather, for instance, will take you to the forecast for the day while the Assistant dictates the results out loud.
You can then either leave it be or tap the bottom of the screen to select one of the Assistant's follow-up suggestions. Or just say "Hey Google" again to utter another command. Unfortunately, the continuous conversations that you can have with the Google Home lineup are not yet available on Google's smart displays.
The Assistant is intuitive, too
One of the best ways to get a feel for how dynamic the Google Assistant is on a screen is to ask the Lenovo Smart Display to help with a recipe. The Assistant will then bring up a reel of results, and once you choose your source, you can start cooking.
The Assistant effectively holds your hand through the entire process, complete with ingredient readouts and step-by-step on-screen instructions. It even waits for you to prompt it to move to the next step, making it feel like a real, bonafide friend in the kitchen. Google has nailed the dynamic here, and it feels much more natural than the Echo Show's static, show-and-tell methodology.
It's a castable device
The Lenovo Smart Display uses Chromecast, so you can stream practically anything to it, either from your smartphone, your Chrome OS laptop or through the Google Chrome browser. Apps like YouTube TV, Hulu, Google Play Movies and TV, and Pluto TV all work with this casting ability. Plenty of music providers work with the Smart Display, too, including Google Play Music (soon to be YouTube Music), Spotify, Pandora, and Deezer.
It can make video and voice calls
The Lenovo Smart Display supports the Duo app for video calls, which does require you to link to your phone number. You can also do this using Google Voice, your phone number, or Project Fi. You don't have to worry about errant family members dropping in as they can with the Echo smart displays (though this feature can be disabled). There's a built-in flap you can use to cover the camera lens for guaranteed privacy.
It offers quick access to your smart home
If you own any smart devices, you'll love that one of the best benefits of using the Google Assistant on the Lenovo Smart Display is the quick access smart home controls that pop up for any compatible connected devices).
When you command a Philips Hue (our favorite) or LIFX smart bulb, for instance, options for brightness and color hue will pop up, effectively turning the display into a sort of centralized controller. This is a great way to give smart home access to everyone in the household, regardless of their tech prowess, though it's not a full replacement for the apps that usually control them.
What missed the mark
- Lack of certain key services and features
- Lack of functionality in available services
Some services are missing
You might find that the Lenovo Smart Display isn’t a fit for you merely because it’s not compatible with a streaming service you like. There is no Amazon Prime Video access on the Lenovo Smart Display (directly correlated to why there’s no YouTube access on the Echo Show—Amazon and Google really don't get along), nor is it an easy feat to access an iTunes library. If you’re serious about your loyalties to either of these services, the Smart Display might feel limiting.
It's also surprising, but worth noting, that the Smart Display doesn’t have casting access for Netflix in addition to a handful of other streaming services. There was no apparent explanation at the time of writing this, but there are some lists already circulating of which streaming services are castable through this smart display. And, because this is still a new device, there's a chance more services will become available via software updates in the future.
Not everything is helpful
Swiping left on the main screen of the Lenovo Smart Display reveals a series of contextual cards corresponding to some of the accounts you have linked up. But they’re not always useful, and especially not in their current implementation. For instance, my Spotify card offers quick links to a few trending playlists, though it hardly ever suggests anything I’m in the mood for.
There’s also a YouTube card that’s accommodating if you’re an avid subscriber, but I would have preferred access to a service I use more often, like YouTube TV. At the very least, Google does try to lead you towards the things the smart display can do, as each card offers suggestions you might not have known to try otherwise.
Should you buy the Lenovo Smart Display?
If you are already a fan of the Google Assistant on an Android device, you’re going to fall in love with the Lenovo Smart Display. It offers all the same responsive, contextual features and presents it all on a clean, intuitive interface that's intuitive to use, which is why it’s also worth buying for brand new users.
In fact, the added display might even make it more inviting than other smart speakers, since there's evidence of what it is you're talking to. That's the whole point of this product category. The Lenovo Smart Display isn't so much about the company that manufactured it or what purpose it serves in the home as much as it is a friendly package for the Google Assistant.
The Google Home smart speakers are excellent accessories in their own right, but unless you're interacting with one, they remain mostly dormant in the home. A display offers a different type of interaction; it begs to be put front and center, to attract the attention of passersby. And it's tangible, in the way that you can look at it whenever you want. Then, when you start to see the faces of the people you adore popping in on a more constant basis for a Duo video chat, you remember exactly why you thought the smart display would be a valuable addition to your home in the first place.
Prices are accurate at the time of publication, but may change over time.